Brixton Hill, 23 May 1999
I wonder what it must have been like. It almost beggars imagination, doesn't it. There they were, in that upper room. One hundred and twenty of them, they say, including Mary the mother of Jesus and several other women. Waiting. Waiting for what must have felt like simply forever.
They'd been told, in Luke's version of the story, to wait in Jerusalem and they would receive power when the Spirit came upon them. So they waited, and waited. At least ten days, we don't, I think, know exactly how long, until the Day of Pentecost dawned. I wonder how many of them had felt like giving up and going home, and celebrating Pentecost, which back then was a sort of Harvest Festival, celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, celebrating Pentecost with their neighbours?
But they didn't go home. They stayed. And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Spirit came on them.
It must have been a pretty dramatic visitation. The tongues of flame, the rushing mighty wind. And the immediate explosion of praise, and when they ran out of words those other words, words of praise that, in this instance, turned out to be words in "in our own native language?
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs - in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." Thus the bystanders. They might not have seen the tongues of flame, or heard the rushing mighty wind, but they certainly saw the results.
But some people thought of a certain advertisement for a certain brand of lager, which, you may remember, was said to refresh the parts other beers cannot reach! And they said, oh, these people have been on the booze; they're bladdered; they're lathered..... And I can think of several rather ruder things they might have said, and so, I expect, can you.
So Peter, glorious, wonderful Peter, who never used to be able to open his mouth without putting his foot in it - they used to say he only opened his mouth to change feet - Peter jumps up and lets out this terrific bellow which shuts everybody up, sharpish. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no," he goes, "we're not on the sauce - come off it, it's only nine am, what do you take us for?" And he goes on to explain that this is what Joel was talking about, this is what they'd all been expecting. And, as you know, he preached so powerfully, and God's presence was so overwhelming, that three thousand people got converted that day alone!
2. So What?
It's such a familiar story, isn't it? You had it this morning, if you were at church this morning. You heard it last year, and the year before, and every year that you've been in Church on Pentecost Sunday. And you'll hear it again next year, and the year after that, and every Pentecost until either you go and be with the Lord, or else until he comes back, and probably you'll go on hearing it, even then!
Well, if it were just history, you'd have reason to be bored. If it was just something that happened long ago and far away, in another country two thousand years ago, then it would be dull.
People have such an odd attitude to the Bible, I find. They say it has to be absolutely true in every single detail, as though being true mattered more than being real. Mind you, they accept that Jesus told stories to make his point, but everything else has to be absolutely accurate. And it's daft. You see, the Bible was written in all sorts of times and places by all sorts of people, and sometimes two accounts of the same thing have been stuck together, and sometimes different people have put a different slant on the same story. But the whole point of the Bible is that it's not a history textbook. Quite apart from anything else, the people who wrote it didn't have the same sorts of standards about history that we have, so they don't provide any proof, or sources, or corroboration of their stories.
The Bible is God's word to us today. It's the story of God's dealings with his people over time and space. And it's the story of the young church, and what happened after Jesus ascended to heaven.
And that's the bit that affects us today. If it was just history, we would need to know it, but not to have it rubbed in year after year after year. If it was just history, it wouldn't affect you.
But it's not just history. The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, sure. That bit is history, as far as I know. But God went on pouring out the Holy Spirit. And God still pours out the Holy Spirit on us today. That's what matters.
3. Still True Today
Yes, God still pours out the Holy Spirit on us today. We, too, can be filled with the Holy Spirit. In fact, we jolly well ought to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and if we are not, there is something the matter with our walk with God! Paul, in fact, in the letter to the Ephesians, actively commands us to "Go on being filled with the Spirit."
But some of us will say, oh, help, no, not me, I'm not worthy. I'm not clean. Well, you're no more and no less worthy than anybody else. But there are things that can stop you being filled with the Holy Spirit. The first is if you are not walking God's way. You do need to be God's person and that is not something that happens automatically. You have to consciously commit yourself to God. We Methodists do this formally each year in the Covenant Service, but you don't have to wait until then!
You need to be God's person, and you need to be prepared to let God work in your life. Sometimes we are tempted, I think, to want all the spectacular gifts of the Holy Spirit - the tongues, the prophecies, the healings, and the rolling on the floor, and the gold fillings that seem to be fashionable in some circles. Of course, it's very exciting when God works in spectacular fashions like that, but what actually matters is that we allow God to help us grow and change and become the people we were designed to be. Paul talks of the fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians. Do you remember: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." That's what's really important about people who are filled with God's Spirit. The people who are like that are the ones who are walking really closely with God.
We, God's people, are too inclined, I'm afraid, to look at the spectacular, and ignore the many humdrum ways in which God works. We'd like to see the tongues of fire, and feel the rushing mighty winds every day - and we'd really rather not have to change our comfortable lifestyles or our rather selfish ways of thinking and being in order to experience them! At least, I wouldn't, and I don't suppose you're much different from me.
But I don't think God works that way. Sure, we do get to see spectacular manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but that's because God loves us and is kind to us. But all too often, we don't allow the Holy Spirit deep inside us to really change us. And that, I think, is what God longs and longs for us to do. We are far too superficial. Wasn't it Dwight L Moody, or one of those American evangelists, who said that the world hasn't yet seen what a single person totally yielded to God could do?
When God spoke to the prophet Joel, he didn't just talk about old men dreaming dreams and young men seeing visions, he produced a vision of plenty, of peacefulness, of the end of famine and locusts and starvation. We are still seeing starvation and famine today, in the Sudan where there's been ethnic cleansing going on for years, and NAT0 hasn't felt it necessary to intervene there, I wonder why, and, of course, in Kosovo. And we are still seeing tribalism and people thinking that only they are the true people, and everybody else is beneath contempt. And we are still seeing wars and earthquakes, fires and tragedies, bombs and shootings all over the world. It's a terrible world we live in.
Yet if only people were surrendered to God. If only people would repent and turn to Jesus, be filled with the Holy Spirit, walk in God's way. We all call ourselves God's people, and I hope that we are. Yet even we find it all too easy to be superficial. To not let what we do here on Sundays affect who we are on Mondays. We don't always walk the way of repentance, consciously deciding moment by moment to go God's way rather than ours. Perhaps you do. I know I don't, not always. In fact, far too seldom.
But, thankfully, that's part of what God is all about. We aren't called to be perfect, we're called to be God's people. We're asked to walk God's way as best we can and, above all, to allow ourselves to be filled, over and over again, with God the Holy Spirit, to be cleansed, to be healed, to be made whole.
And that's why we go on telling the story of what happened that first Pentecost, the day the Church was born, the day the disciples were changed. Because we, too, need to be changed.
Let's sing "Spirit of the Living God" as a prayer. If you need the words, they're number 295 in the hymn book.
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.
Break me, melt me,
Mould me, fill me,
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.
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